In ‘Purity,’ Jonathan Franzen chronicles the pain of growing up

Author Jonathan Franzen smiles as he speaks at an event at BookExpo America, Wednesday, May 27, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Purity Tyler — heroine of the latest novel confirming that Jonathan Franzen is among this country's best living writers — goes by the nickname Pip. It's a nod to the hero of Dickens' "Great Expectations" — a novel that, like "Purity" itself, explores how we project our childish fantasies onto our children, making it harder for anyone to ever mature.

The 23-year-old Pip we meet in Oakland, in the first of this novel's seven sections, can seem as immature as her Dickensian namesake originally is. She has major trust issues, an overly casual approach toward sex and poor impulse control as well as a dead-end job reflecting her inability to decide what to make of her life. But like Dickens' Pip, she also has a good heart.

Pip is the main character in the last as well as the first section of "Purity," reflecting Franzen's mirror-like structure, in which initially discrete stories bleed into and are informed by each other.

Sections two and six are dominated by Andreas Wolf, an East German who morphs from pampered child of the Stalinist elite to a dead ringer for Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks editor whose vaunted insistence on transparency is clouded by allegations of sexual assault and rape.

Andreas' version of WikiLeaks is the Sunlight Project, which operates from a Bolivian jungle — a wry commentary on the romantic but self-indulgent efforts of Che Guevara to foster a peasant revolution there. Despite the Project's trumpeted commitment to letting the sun shine in, Andreas' own history is flecked with shadow.


In tracing the labyrinthine past bringing Andreas from his East German origins to the present, Franzen's literary precursor isn't Dickens, but Shakespeare. Self-dramatizing as well as charismatic, Andreas thinks of himself as Hamlet, in a story that includes characters reminiscent of the Ghost, the innocent Ophelia, the smart but servile Polonius, the loyal Horatio and — most of all — Hamlet's mother, Gertrude.

While nearly all of the relations between biological mothers and their offspring in "Purity" are fraught or worse, the nearly incestuous relationship between Andreas and Katya Wolf is the most convoluted and damaging.

Andreas' inability to untangle himself from the alternately adoring and destructive Katya is one of the many ways in which his better, more adult self is jeopardized by his regressive narcissism. That infantilism is reflected in Andreas' creepy relations with younger women, his craving for adulation and even the "savage naïveté" of the Sunshine Project — which Franzen contrasts with the less sexy but more responsible journalism practiced within more traditional media.

Franzen spotlights such old-fashioned reporters in sections three and five, during which we meet journalist Tom Aberant — three years older than Andreas — as he tries to grow past his own version of idealizing purity and arrested development: his ill-fated and claustrophobic marriage to Anabel.

Franzen's chronicle of that relationship recalls the sharpest and funniest moments in "The Corrections" (2001), which was stuffed with such satirical vignettes. But like the terrific portrait of Andreas — among the most textured characters in any Franzen novel — the story of Tom and Anabel also reflects the increased maturity of "Freedom" (2010), which remains Franzen's most nuanced and sophisticated treatment of marriage.

Nestled at the heart of "Purity" — in section four — is the story of what happens when Pip encounters Andreas. He is regressing toward childhood and she is slowly becoming an adult; they meet at a point when neither trajectory is sure. Here, as throughout his oeuvre, Franzen makes clear that behaving like an adult can be hard and lonely work.

The Internet, Franzen repeatedly illustrates in "Purity," makes it harder still.

Franzen unapologetically and persuasively analogizes the Orwellian role of the Internet in our lives to Stalinism; both make it difficult to have a private life, think for oneself or engage in meaningful ways with other people. Both, "Purity" suggests, can also turn adults into children.


That's anathema to a writer who thinks harder than any American novelist since Henry James about Americans' categorical refusal to grow up. "Tech problems are easy and human problems are hard," one character remarks. All the more reason to embrace Franzen's increasingly sophisticated stories of human foibles, in all their messy, life-affirming impurity.

What To Read Next
Get Local